Beyond Affairs Network provides 'a safe haven' for spouses whose mates have been unfaithful.
By Celia Storey
After her husband confessed he'd had an affair, silver threads and golden needles could not have mended her heart.
"For an instant I went, 'Oh. Now I know. Now I know the truth.' There was a calm," she says, in a voice that is quiet but not calm.
"And then my world just caved in."
Something fundamental died in that one moment, call it faith or trust. She would call it naivete.
"I think when you get married you assume that people are going to be faithful to each other," she says. "It's just an assumption."
Two and a half years later, the Little Rock woman can recall the moment of disillusion with acceptance, because she no longer imagines that infidelity is rare or improbable among good people. She no longer assumes that only a few egoists, philanderers or gorgeous people have affairs.
This Little Rock woman, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her still-beloved husband's reputation, leads Arkansas' only chapter of BAN, Beyond Affairs Network. The network is a nonprofit, volunteer-led and Internet assisted support group for people whose spouses have had an affair.
The straying spouses can't participate, nor can professional counselors just looking to help people, nor can reporters. (Counselors struggling with their own spouse's infidelity are welcome.) Members can meet face to face or they can remain anonymous, corresponding through e-mail. Either way, their confidentiality is protected, the leader says.
Although the Arkansas coordinator and her husband eventually worked through her grief to forgiveness and renewed commitment, she says the network does not set out to save marriages. It also doesn't intend to replace professional counseling.
She describes the group as simply "a safe haven" where wounded people can talk about their feelings without fearing exposure or censure.
"I'm not a counselor. I'm not supposed to give advice," she says. But she and other group members are qualified by experience to tell shattered and suffering people, "These are normal feelings. You're not crazy." She says the pain can go on so long that people do wonder if they are. She did.
"I was really relieved to find out, after I found BAN, that I wasn't crazy, that my feelings and actions were in line with how many people react to and process a spouse's affair. That is what BAN is all about. We are members, albeit unwillingly, of an exclusive club. But, everyone has the capacity to survive this, and who better to help than someone who understands through experience?
"It's about moving forward, and it's about personal healing, not so much healing your marriage. Some people want to do that, some people don't. But it's about healing yourself and knowing that you'll survive."
Interested Arkansans can contact her through a Web site operated by psychologists Peggy and James Vaughan of La Jolla, Calif.: www.dearpeggy.com or e-mail her directly at LRban@aristotle.net.
MONOGAMY MYTH? The Beyond Affairs Network was founded by Peggy Vaughan in the 1980s after she and her husband began speaking about how they survived James' infidelity. In 1974, after 20 years of marriage, he realized his dishonesty was a wedge between them, confessed and began working on staying faithful.
The fact that monogamy was not easy for either of them led to their first book and appearances on talk shows including The Phil Donahue Show. That sparked national debate about whether it's wise for straying spouses to confess.
In her book The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering From Affairs (New Market Press, 2003), and on her Web site, Peggy Vaughan writes that affairs can happen to "good marriages" for three reasons. Those who stray can be pushed by problems and dissatisfactions within the relationship or pulled by excitement, curiosity, enhanced self-image or "falling in love."
The third factor is societal.
"In reality, while society gives lip service to monogamy, there are significant societal factors that actually support and encourage affairs," she writes.
These include the assumption that only a few, bad people have them, which discourages partners from talking about their natural attractions to other people; tacit acceptance of sexual dishonesty beginning in adolescence (pretending that "good" kids don't experiment); glamorization of affairs in movies and books; commercialization of sex through advertising; rigid notions about the roles a husband or a wife must play; fairy-tale notions about soul mates; and media fascination with celebrity affairs.
Honesty is so fundamental to the health of a marriage, she writes, that if one partner does cheat, the marriage will sicken until the offender confesses. Once cheaters do confess, they and their partners suffer, but that suffering can lead to deepened commitment, she says.
In his book Infidelity: A Survival Guide, Don-David Lusterman notes that "not everyone who has discovered marital unfaithfulness is equally wounded." But for some, learning about a spouse's affair can be so shocking that the recovery period looks like post-traumatic stress.
"If you cannot believe that your own relationship is safe, how can you trust that your job will be safe, your friends will not betray you and that everything you have trusted and believed in might not prove untrustworthy?" he asks. "The meaningfulness of your very life is called into question."
One member of the Arkansas support group (who asked that his name be withheld) describes "a period of intense hurt, anger, shock and disbelief. Besides one's beliefs concerning marriage and monogamy, infidelity will cause the injured spouse to question many of their other core beliefs.
"My situation progressed to and recently culminated in divorce. Still to be determined is what effect my experience will have on future relationships I may become involved in."
Because such pain is devastating and healing takes years, some counselors say confession does more harm than good.
The Arkansas group leader says that viewpoint was well-expressed in October during an episode of the brief-lived CBS drama The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. A teenager learned that her father, the mayor, was being blackmailed by a former lover. She pleaded with her father not to confess to her mother. "Because she will leave you," she said.
Vaughan does not insist that cheating spouses must confess. But she disputes the idea that they should never tell. In The Monogamy Myth, she writes that "while some relationships come apart from not being ready to deal with the truth, many more relationships come apart because of the effort to keep an affair hidden."
Ultimately in Brotherhood, the father did confess, and his wife did not leave him. Two weeks later, she had forgiven him and moved on. But that was a TV show.
In reality, the Arkansas leader says, healing takes years.
"We didn't sleep much in the first months afterward," she said. "I would keep him up to all hours of the night asking him the same questions over and over again, which is so normal, which I didn't know at the time.... There's a need to know."
Vaughan is not alone in believing that confession of betrayal can result - eventually - in deepened commitment. Before her death in October, psychologist Shirley Glass advocated honesty about the emotional connections that can lead to affairs. Others who insist that honesty is essential to marriage are Michelle Weiner-Davis (Divorce Busting), Lusterman (Infidelity: A Survival Guide) and Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education and the director of annual Smart Marriages /Happy Families conferences (www.smartmarriages.org). In its Consumer Update pamphlets, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy states, "The majority of marriages not only survive infidelity, but marriage and family therapists have observed that many marriages can become stronger and more intimate after couples therapy."
But that is not to say that every marriage should be saved.
Lusterman notes, "There are some signs that mean that a point of no return has been reached. The clearest is, of course, the absolute refusal to admit an infidelity despite powerful evidence that it is ongoing. The second is the absence of any expression of remorse for the pain that lying has caused. The third is that sometimes even truth and remorse can't revive love."
The Arkansas support leader wants people to know "that affairs are more common than we can even imagine, that it can happen to anyone, that it can heal and that personal healing is more important at least initially than even saving your marriage."
"You've got to heal for your own sake. You've got to put yourself back together. That sounds very selfish, but we are our own caretakers....